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An Oral History of The Littlest Hobo, Canada's Greatest TV Show

One of Canada's most iconic television programs stars a German Shepherd and a melancholy theme song that can stick in your brain for days and make you question conformity.

Do not cry for The Littlest Hobo.

One of Canada's most iconic television programs stars a German Shepherd and a melancholy theme song that can stick in your brain for days and make you question conformity. The Littlest Hobo is an example of Canadian television done right. Airing for six years in 80 countries, it then went on to live a full life in weekend morning re-runs on CTV, its parent home, until 2013.

The show's roots date back to 1958, when ol' timey Hollywood producers Stuart and Dorrell McGowan made a low-budget film about a wandering German Shepherd dog, which went on to be a big success. Since the character of Lil' Ho was so endearing, it was eventually turned into a TV series. Shot in British Columbia between 1963 and 1965, the original series had to halt production because of legal disputes concerning ownership between the McGowans and funders Stoner Broadcasting. When the case came to conclusion seven years later, in favour of the brothers, they'd long tired of the idea to keep the show alive. However, a young Canadian named Christopher Dew, who'd worked on the series as a "wet behind the ears" editor, knew the nomadic canine still had more rides to take on that train.

Like most successful Canadian TV shows, every working actor within a 50 km radius of the set appeared on the series, including Mike Myers and Reign's Megan Follows, whose publicist wasn't terribly helpful for this piece.

The early days

Christopher Dew (Producer): I'd always really loved the [original] show and I had an idea to get it back into production. I contacted the McGowans and said, "I'd never produced anything like this, I edit and direct but I think I could probably figure out how to do it. Would you be interested in getting the show back into production?" They said, "No, not really," and I asked if they'd be interested in licensing the rights to me and let me get some money together and a broadcaster and get it back into production? I know what makes that show work. You don't spend three years in an editing department without understanding every nuance and every subtlety of the storytelling and the character and what he can and can't do. They said they would be happy to sign the rights to me if I could get a financial package together.

Allan Eastman (Director): I'd been directing things like Beachcombers and Grizzly Adams. I'd taken a run at Hollywood and it hadn't worked out well. I'd come back to Toronto in the summer of 1979 and was looking for gigs and met with Chris. It was a great gig for me. You look back at those things and you think, oh yeah, a dog show. But it was this really great action adventure show that was shot in the woods, it was a five-day shoot for a half-hour show. We were just off in nature having a good time, all the time. It's only years later when you realize those were golden years.

Christopher Dew: Everything was going into colour programming. All CTV had was the original Hobo, this glorious show in black and white. I'd maintained contact with the trainer (Chuck Eisenmann) and drew up a contract. So I went to CTV and said, "I have the rights from the owners, a contract with the trainer, and me as producer." They said, "Well, we like two of the three of the elements. You don't know how to produce something like that." I said "Get me a line producer and I'll learn on the job and make sure the show is as true to the original series." We went into production, and it lasted 114 episodes and six years.

Jim Henshaw (Actor): I would have been in about my 30s back then. I was an actor in Toronto for about 15 years. Allen Eastman and I had written a screenplay that had been produced. I was mostly doing theatre at the time and he got onto Hobo. It was the kind of thing where every actor in Toronto was on the show at some point in time. They would bring actors back every season or two because they needed so many people.

Working with the show's stars

Jim Henshaw:My first episode, Bigfoot was loose and I played a Southern Sheriff. First day on set, I was sitting at a roadside hamburger place, having a hamburger. And the dog comes up to get my attention to whatever is going on. I asked the trainer if I should feed the dog some hamburger, and he said "No", and I said "Why not?" and he said, "Then we'd have to show him defecate." I kind of looked at the director and was like, it is okay for me to be eating on the show

Allan Eastman: There were five dogs always. Chuck's training method was based on teaching the dogs language. He maintained that he could train a dog at about the comprehension level of an eight-year-old child. He instructed the dog by basically talking to them. That was interesting and effective.

There was a patriarch that kept the dogs in line, there was a lead acting dog who was seven or eight years old. It took a while for them to get to that level of language comprehension. One of the effects of that was that it slowed down the dogs. They took the time to listen. Then, he always had a couple of younger dogs for the stunts and action. And then there was always one pup in training.

Chuck was an exuberant, crazy guy. He was trying to keep the dogs at pitch, and was either screaming or yelling. It was quite disconcerting for anyone that was from the outside that was in that circumstance. Poor actors would be trying to work, while this guy would be screaming at the top of his lungs: "Keep looking at the ball, goddamit!"

Jim Henshaw: My second episode was a few years later, as a DEA agent who was tracking some drug smuggling that was going on in a movie unit. So I was undercover as a vampire in this movie. And the dog was helping me unearth the bad guys. There was a long scene where London (a lead dog) had to untie me. The dog is pulling away at my trusses. I've got about a page of dialogue that was explaining the plot to the dog so the audience would understand what was going on with the drug smugglers. Through the whole thing, Chuck had to give commands to the dog. Normally it's like, "OK, do I stop?" Whoever the director was told me to ignore the command. It was one of those weird things where you're trying to do a page of dialogue and you have someone shouting, "No! Do this! Do that! Back up! Over here!" Then you just went in for a day of AVR to re-voice it all because it had to be re-done.

Maybe Tomorrow

Christopher Dew: There wasn't the greatest confidence from CTV in my ability to produce the show. They were trying to sell it into the US and brought an old school producer to oversee the show, keep an eye on me and make sure I was running things properly, make things happen the way things should. He wasn't really needed but it gave the financial people a kind of comfort zone. Then he became involved in creative decisions.

Terry Bush (Composer): I got involved in it through Christopher Dew. I was a jingle writer back then. Someone in the jingle business recommended me to do it. I sat down with my good friend John Crossen who wrote the lyrics and we put together the song and submitted the song. He wrote the lyrics in about a day. And I said, "Wow, that encapsulates exactly what they're telling me the show is about."

Christopher Dew: I'd known Terry's work from the commercial business and I thought his idiom, his contemporary country and western style was what I felt was perfectly appropriate for this character. I pitched the track to the money guys and this other producer, who was brought in to keep an eye on me and make sure I was running things. The money guys loved it, I loved it but this producer hated it. His prevailing wisdom was to use jazz instead.

Terry Bush: So I submitted the song and they didn't like it. "They" being the powers that be. Christopher liked it. But they didn't like it. So they went to New York and got someone to write a jazz version for them. And that didn't work either. So they came back to my song and we re-recorded it a number of times until they were happy and accepted it. The rest is history. I thought the original way I did it was bang on, it was much more country than the version they used. But I'm not complaining. It went great.

Christopher Dew: In the end, the song that I commissioned from Terry prevailed and it went on to be a worldwide hit. Big time.

Terry Bush: The show and the song were huge in England. They sang that song at the end of the night in pubs. It's since been used for a commercial for the 50th anniversary of Dulux Paints. I get all sorts of letters from people in England about how much the song meant to them. I never realized the effect it had on people worldwide. I haven't been able to retire but it's been good money over the years, good royalties. I was advised by a friend in the business that said, "Whatever you do, don't sign away your rights because they always want to buy your rights and do it as a work for hire." We kept our rights and did well.

The show's audience

Allan Eastman: Before I started working, I went to the set to watch the dogs working. It was a public location in Parkdale and there was a big gallery of people watching. Chuck just got one of the lead dogs, who was called Toro, to walk up and press a doorbell and all the kids went, "Ooooh!" It was then that I realized that anything you did on that show wasn't for the kids. The action of the dog and everything the dog was doing would be enough for them. The real challenge of the show was to make it interesting enough dramatically to entertain the parents and older people who were sitting down with the kids to watch it.

Christopher Dew: It's not a kid's show. The original series was meant for a family audience. When we did Nielsen rating analysis, we found that 62 percent of the audience was over the age of 18. So what that meant was that mom, dad, and little Alice were sitting down with the show with brother Bobby and Aunt Margaret. In other words, three adults and two children were watching the show every week, which the advertising and broadcaster loved, because they could sell advertising at adult rates instead of children's rates.

Allan Eastman: We were a group of very young people that made that show. So the ideas and concerns and the things that were important to young people inevitably was reflected into the show. We were concerned about environment and ecology, in the early '80s before it was really on the public radar. But it was an issue that was arising among young people and we tried to reflect that on the show. We did shows about race relations, we did shows about social equality. We did shows about crime in its forms. When we got our crew jackets made at the end of the season, we put "Sex, Dogs and Rock 'n' Roll". Never has family entertainment been made by such a group of reprobates. It was a fresh environment and it gave it an energy that wouldn't necessarily happen today.

Foibles

Allan Eastman: There was a show about forest fires and smoke jumpers and I was amazed at the ability of the dog, especially the stunt dogs, to do complicated physical action. The script called for the dog to parachute with the smoke jumpers into a forest fire. I talked to Chuck at some length about if we should actually parachute in the dog, because we had a helicopter. He eventually nixed it because we couldn't risk it. So we got a very realistic German Shepherd dummy made up that we put into the parachute and threw out of an airplane. I had three cameras on the ground to shoot the parachute jump and of course they threw the dummy out of the airplane from about 2,000 feet and of course the parachute never opened. It just came straight down 2,000 feet and made a three foot deep hole in the group. I was glad I didn't insist on using the dog for that one.

Christopher Dew: There was an episode where the dog has been accidentally poisoned. I asked Chuck how we're going to make the dog stagger? He told me he had an old dog who used to be the lead but had hip problems. The way he walks, although he's not in pain, looks weird. We shot a sequence that pulls my heart out of my chest where the dog is staggering through the woods, gets to a log and jumps up on it with his front feet and drags his back feet over the log and falls in a big heap and starts to walk some more till he finally makes it to a ranger station. The amount of mail and phone calls we got the following day, the switchboard lit up. "How dare you drug the Littlest Hobo! How dare you hurt him just for showbiz!" We got ripped on by our audience, because of what they perceived we did to the Littlest Hobo. We had to issue a press release and we turned it into a positive story, about the last hurray of a great grandfather dog that had sired a bunch of the dogs on the show.

Until Tomorrow...

Allan Eastman: It was a special thing. I've worked on some pretty special mini-series and I've worked with some pretty famous actors in my time but whenever I go to visit relatives, it's "This is uncle Allan, he directed The Littlest Hobo." We didn't realize it was a special thing at the time. We just thought it was a fairly pleasant gig with some weirdness to it. But at that same time, that's what's lasted.

Christopher Dew: We finished production 30 years ago. You can still go to a cocktail party and mentioned The Littlest Hobo and people will know it. We were collectively involved in producing a piece of family programming that has become a part of the cultural mosaic of Canada.

Allan Eastman: A lot of people in production went on to have long careers. We had these great young cameramen that would get into impossible situations to get a shot. They loved being out in the country doing an action show instead of being in the studio shooting some country and western music show.

Christopher Dew: There's nobody who doesn't like The Littlest Hobo. It's like there's nobody who doesn't like firemen. Not that many people had anything bad to say about The Littlest Hobo. It's fallen into popular jargon, people will say, "Somebody had a Littlest Hobo moment," which means someone can't stay still, they have to keep going.

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